Ancient Maya Tomb Found: Upright Skeleton, Unusual Location

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"The chamber was accessed from above by a stuccoed stone chute that descends from the surface of the temple," he continued.

Maca said the features allowed the tomb to be "reentered years after the original interment, for purposes of ancestor veneration."

The tomb's location, some 1,300 feet (400 meters) west of the Acropolis, Copán's ceremonial core, was unexpected, Maca added.

"The design is without precedent in the Maya area and is the first elaborate tomb construction to be discovered outside the ceremonial center of Copán," he said. (See pictures of what the Maya Empire might have looked like.)

The grandiose tombs belonging to members of the Copán dynasty, royal court, and royal family are typically found in Copán's Acropolis, Maca explained. Copán archaeologists have focused their research in the central area for many recent decades as well as much of the 19th century.

"As we begin to think more broadly about the great extent of the royal city, and about how to protect it against modern looting and population growth, we are coming to understand that the dynasty manifested its power in sectors of the Copán Valley that have never been explored," Maca said.

Oddities

There are other oddities to the tomb.

The position of the buried individual—seated with legs crossed—was not common in Copán or in the Maya lowlands during the Classic period, which lasted from about A.D. 300 to 900.

And several vessels found in the tomb, made in sets specifically for the burial, bear "a type of false or alternative hieroglyphics unlike those used by the ancient Maya," he said.

Some of the pottery vessels likely came from the south near present-day El Salvador, Maca added.

"Thus it is unlikely that these were made in Copán and probable that they signify some sort of cultural affiliation with that region," he said.

Also found in the tomb were seashells laid in a pattern that appears to represent a kind of cosmological map and may be representative of the waters in Maya creation mythology, Maca said.

The shells must have arrived to the region through commercial exchanges with the coast, Maca said.

The findings bring into clearer focus a picture of a Classic-period Copán society that was culturally diverse.

The discovery provides "an unusual archaeological context that helps expand our knowledge of the sociopolitical and cultural complexity of the ancient city and of the funerary and ritual landscape of the Copán Valley during the seventh century A.D.," Maca said.

Dario Euraque, director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, said Maca's findings were significant for a number of reasons.

"Mainly, this is the first tomb to be found outside the principal monuments where all funeral sites are located," he said.

"We never thought we would find any in the Bosque, which is along the periphery of Copán."

He agreed that the artifacts and tomb characteristics were not representative of the Maya culture.

"This goes against theories that all populations in the Copán Valley were uniquely Mayan," he said. "There appears to have been a cultural mix."

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